“The Truths We Keep Coming Back To”

My friend Mike is a great essayist, often voicing his thoughts about current events and our complicated culture on his blog. He tasks himself with unraveling controversial issues, doing so with grace and wisdom, to make sense of many-sided arguments in a way that is fair and considerate to the whole issue.

For his most recent article, Mike asked if I would include a photograph what would fit with its theme. I did so happily. I chose this image to accompany his thoughts because of the critical and emotional qualities the photograph evokes. Though I was reluctant to recall themes from the Revolution from which the flag was inspired, I do think that the division and polarization, as Mike puts it, was felt then as it is now. Moreover, these voices, divided, all seem to be directed into the figure's head space, characterized as a serpent. It's up for interpretation.

I've copied the post from his blog, Reason from the Heart, below.

"The Truths We Keep Coming Back To":
Our National Identity Crises and
the Enduring Wisdom of Robert Frost

an essay by Mike Doar

Our country is in the midst of an identity crises.  The current choices for president represent very different ideas of what it means to be American. Hillary Clinton could be our first female president, and her election would confirm an America that is becoming more open and fair to women. But, as a lifelong politician, she’s also a deeply entrenched member of “the system” that many Americans blame for our problems.  Donald Trump capitalizes on that cynicism to pander to an America that is both hateful and and scared. His very nomination indicates that a significant portion of our country is racist, sexist, violent, and cowardly. But distrust and fear are not confined to the hateful fringes that have rallied around Trump: the popularity of Bernie Sanders, as well as the unprecedented attention paid to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, proves that impatience with the status quo is widespread. The passion with which the American people are engaged in the fates of their chosen candidates is tremendous, and is indicative of a dangerously polarized society. This is a disturbing situation, and answers are hard to come by, but I find a great deal of wisdom in the poetry of Robert Frost.

I admit, it’s quite a transition from the contemporary political scene to the work of the long dead poet laureate from New England. But Frost is still relevant today because of his  remarkable skill at observing small moments in life or in nature, and then expanding to surprise his readers with blasts of incredible universal wisdom. He is also uniquely American, and his commentary on our country and its history continues to instruct.  I find this particularly true of his 1915 poem, “The Black Cottage.”

That poem is structured around the reminiscence of a local preacher as he recalls the old widow who once occupied an abandoned cottage in his town.  Through his memory of her beliefs, he expounds on the definition of truth. This preacher believes that most of the ideas we typically recognize as true are deeply colored by popular opinion. He yearns to transcend such a transitory brand of truth, and to grasp those truths that are eternal.  

His monologue really takes off when he begins discussing the widow’s reaction to the death of her husband in the Civil War.  He argues that for her, the war “wasn’t just to keep the states together,/Nor just to free the slaves...She wouldn’t have believed those ends enough/To have given outright for them all she gave.”  To the old widow in the black cottage, the loss of her husband in war is not justified by the union of the states or the emancipation of slaves. For her, the only adequate defense of the war is that it was fought to prove “all men are created equal.”  

The preacher marvels at the widow’s innocent belief in absolute equality, and remembers her “quaint phrases- so removed/From the world’s view to-day of such things.” However, he then goes on to ponder the famous principle himself:  

That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.

What did he mean? Of course the easy way

Is to decide it simply isn’t true.

It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.

But never mind, the Welshman got it planted

Where it will trouble us a thousand years.

Each age will have to reconsider it.

I’ve quoted this passage at length because it accesses the dilemma at the core of the present election: what is America’s identity in this “age”?  How are we “reconsidering” Jefferson’s words now? And to return to my original question, where can we really find the truth?

The answers in the Preacher’s musings are ambiguous. He ponders the widow’s antiquated beliefs and asks, “why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true?/Cling to it long enough and not a doubt/It will turn true again.” His point is that as the tides of time run in and out, so do popular conceptions of truth: “Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”  This idea makes reality a slippery thing. When the accepted truth depends on the popular opinion of a moment; it becomes hard to determine those truths that always were, and always will be, true. The Preacher recognizes that frustration, and longs to become, “monarch of a desert land/ I could devote and dedicate forever to the truths we keep coming back and back to.”  He dreams of taking eternal truth away with him to a remote land and protecting it so that it may not be corrupted by other human beings.



The kind of place the Preacher envisions could not contain a myriad of opinions because truth immediately becomes distorted when it’s exchanged among thousands and thousands of clamoring voices. It would have to be place “No one would covet or think it worth/ The pains of conquering to force change on.” But America is in fact the polar opposite of the Preacher’s “desert land.”  America is no undesirable “desert land.” The history of our country is one of conquest and change, and our discourse is a maddening whirlwind in which it is remarkably easy to lose touch with the truth. And that brings me back to where I began: this election, and the dangerously polarized state of the American people.

America is a democratic experiment, and that means that we welcome those truth-distorting voices Frost’s Preacher is tempted to shun.  In our democracy a cacophony of voices peddle differing “truths” to a population longing to throw itself passionately behind something indisputably noble and right.  The problem so gracefully captured by Frost is that it is hard to capture any trace of the eternal in such a raucous chorus. One danger before us in this election is the apparent willingness of the American people to throw themselves behind political candidates, and then behave as if they believe that they are not only tendering their votes, but their very souls. This is why we live in such a partisan age: because for some reason Americans believe that a political platform not only represents a candidate’s opinion on how to best address the problems of our nation, but also a viable religion founded upon eternal truth. That simply isn’t the case.  

Having said that, I must add that I’m by no means discouraging political activism. I love living in a country so full of passionate people. Some of the people I admire most in my life have committed themselves to enacting positive change through the medium of politics. I just think that at the moment there is a dangerous capacity on both sides of the political spectrum to value party or candidate above all else, and to dismiss those with differing opinions.  That kind of zealotry causes disdain, deep resentment, and anger, all of which have been on full display for this entire election season. We would live in a more civil and unified country if we understood politics in a more utilitarian way, and sought eternal truth elsewhere. In doing so we may engage in a more productive national conversation.

And in that spirit I have one more thing to say: it may be wrong to parade any political candidate as a paragon of eternal truth, but it is certainly not wrong to acknowledge the fact that one of our choices is the demon spawn of the Father of Lies himself.  There is no need to go over Donald Trump’s multiple offenses. It is enough to simply say he is an enemy to truth. So I’m with her not because I believe Hillary Clinton is perfect. She shouldn’t have to be.  I think she has the experience and grit to maintain stability in the society in which I live, and I’d be proud of an America that possessed the open-mindedness to elect a female Commander and Chief. I’ll vote for Hillary, condemn Trump, and seek those “truths we keep coming back to” outside the realm of politics.